Interfaith Chaplain for a Non Religious School?

It can be done Chaplain Nora Wood believes, even at Bryn Mawr

By Katelyn Schlefke             

Religious is not the first word that anyone would use to describe Bryn Mawr College. Chances are it isn’t the second or third either.

The image that comes to mind for many students when asked to imagine the stereotypical Bryn Mawr student is a young, liberal, progressive woman dedicated to feminism and social justice.

Most people would say that religion has no place in that picture, but according to the college’s Interfaith Chaplain Nora Woods, this isn’t necessarily the case. Many Americans view religious beliefs and political beliefs as things that go hand in hand: if you’re a liberal, you’re not religious, and if you’re a conservative, you are religious.

Woods has a very different opinion. “I don’t think the story that religiosity and conservatism have always gone together is even remotely true.” said Woods, “I think it’s an American story of the most recent decades.”

Nora Woods

Woods doesn’t fit the stereotypical idea of a religious administrator at an American college. She’s a fairly young Jewish woman, a self-proclaimed progressive, and a member of the LGBT community.

According to Bryn Mawr College’s website, Woods is currently in her final year of study at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and will be ordained as a Reconstructionist Rabbi in June.

Woods summed up her job on Bryn Mawr’s campus with the following three roles: “Pastoral care, support person, multi-faith community.”

The first role, provider of pastoral care, consists of providing support to individual members of Bryn Mawr’s community.

For Woods, “Spiritual care is about helping people think through: what is it you believe in? How do you make sense of the world? But in a more meta way.”

Her belief is that many people have religious ideals, but that they don’t always live their everyday lives in accordance with those ideals. Her job in this regard is to help students to practice whatever religious traditions they follow in a way that is more authentic and true to themselves.

“If a student tells me, ‘What I believe in is Islam,’” said Woods, “my job is to help them be a more rooted and strong Muslim.”

Her role as a support person is in regards to student-run religious organizations on campus.

“Due to the fact that we do self-government here, I’m not the one running those groups.” said Woods, referring to religious life organizations run by students, “But if they need help organizing or with resources, I’m here for them.”

Her final role as the facilitator of a multi-faith community is both the most difficult to fulfill and one of the most important.

For Woods, organizing a multi-faith community is about forming relationships between the different faith groups present on campus and hopefully creating some friendships in order to open a healthy dialogue on controversial issues that doesn’t lead to pointless arguments.

Woods acknowledges, however, that this won’t be an easy goal to accomplish.

“A thing people do is say ‘I want to have friendships across differences,’ then seek out someone different from them and then try to talk about the things they don’t have in common.” said Woods, “And shockingly that doesn’t go well.”

The solution, according to Woods, is to form relationships that have nothing to do with the topics these groups disagree about before trying to discuss their differences.

Woods believes the way to do this is to have members of different religious life organizations perform some sort of “outward facing service work” together to serve the larger community in order to encourage them to see each other as humans rather than as the enemy.

“All these religious groups on campus believe that everybody ought to have access to food and housing,” said Woods, “So we’re going to go to a soup kitchen and work as a team, and they can chat together, and have the experience of serving people who are experiencing something really devastating at the moment.”

The hope is that exercises such as this will be a bonding experience that will build bridges between groups that otherwise would never have reason to communicate.

In the midst of all this discussion about connecting various religious groups together arises the original issue: Bryn Mawr College, on the surface level, doesn’t appear to have much religious life at all.

On an institutional level, Woods believes this is the result of historical precedent.

“A lot of this came from the explicit, anti-religious polemic of M. Carey Thomas,” said Woods, with a sarcastic tone, “She had a lot of ideas. Many good, a lot not so great.”

Thomas, Bryn Mawr’s second president, held many racist and anti-Semitic views, which Woods knows all too well as a Jewish woman herself.

However, this anti-religious attitude is not just a Bryn Mawr problem, but rather something that affects many institutions of higher learning.

Bryn Mawr was conceived early on as a non-religious school, and according to Woods, “That then put the school on a trajectory that was more concerned with a particular type of academia that often scoffed at religiosity as being unscientific or soft, and that’s not specific to Bryn Mawr, I think that’s kind of a thing.”

However, Woods also believes that academia as a whole has recently become more open to religious beliefs as a component of intellectual life. To her, religion and an academically rigorous life don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

“I think there’s culturally a moment, now, where people can understand that you can be both religious and academically rigorous, religious and scientific,” said Woods.

This still leaves the original issue, however: how can a community of young liberal women integrate religion into their lives?

To Woods, this is a non-issue. One that reveals both America’s Christian-centric systems of thought and the religious right’s success at claiming religion as something that is only for them.

“I think the religious right, a very particular brand of conservative Christianity, have been incredibly successful in the last three or four decades of their campaign saying that to be religious is to then be a certain kind of conservative.” said Woods, with a gesture of emphasis.

In Woods’ opinion, this is not the case. She pointed out that there are and have been many liberals and progressives who have held very strong religious beliefs.

“If you look at many social justice movements and progressive movements, religions have been at the center,” said Woods, “The standard example is the civil rights movement, a movement that was largely organized through church based communities.”

Even the Catholic Church, which many view as one of the most conservative organizations in America due to its stance on gay marriage and abortion, can be seen as historically liberal in some ways, such as economic policy.

“You have the Catholic Workers party, which has for years done incredibly ground breaking work when it comes to economic policy and immigration policy,” said Woods, “so even within those conservative blocks there is some complexity and nuance.”

This is just within the Christian world. Thinking outside the American tendency to treat “religion” and “Christianity” as synonyms, there is even more of a basis for liberal politics within religious groups.

“There have been very politically active, liberal and progressive Rabbis in religious and Jewish communities forever,” said Woods, “and I think that’s also true in a number of other faith traditions as well.”

Given all of this, combined with her personal experience as a Jewish woman, Woods has never had an issue with living as both religious and progressive. Nor has she felt any conflict between her religion and her sexuality.

“I believe the most significant forces of the world are about compassion, empathy, and love, and that draws me to the conclusions of radical acceptance in general and generosity, and I see that best reflected in more progressive political causes,” said Woods, “I don’t have to do work of reconciliation, for me these things naturally flow together.”

However, while it’s all well and good to acknowledge that religion has been an integral part of many liberal movements, this does not erase the fact that religion has also been used to justify many horrible actions and policies in the past.

Woods also acknowledges that those who follow certain religious traditions have to recognize and be aware of the damage that has been done in the name of their faith.

To her, this is just part of being a responsible citizen of the modern world.

However, this doesn’t mean that a religion should be defined by the bad rather than the good. Woods uses a reality TV trope as an analogy to explain this particular idea.

“There’s this really common trope of reality TV where there will be people living together, and someone will have a moment of weakness where they’ll say something really awful, and everyone will say, ‘she showed her true colors,’” explained Woods, “and I’m always like ‘This is so disconnected. Why is it that someone’s worst moment is what we take as the true reflection of who they are?’”

According to Woods, the way to reconcile these two concepts is for each person to follow the religious tradition that feels authentic to them, while remembering to acknowledge the bad that goes along with it.

Woods also believes that incorporating spirituality into one’s life doesn’t necessarily have to involve an organized religion. Instead what it’s about is finding the things that make an individual person feel more connected to themselves and the world.

“If someone wants to have a spiritual practice that works for them, but organized religion just isn’t, I would say, ‘Great, tell me about the times that you have felt connected to something bigger than yourself, tell me about the times that you have felt awe. Tell me about the times that you have felt small in a way that is comforting and not diminishing,’” said Woods.

The idea is to use these moments of awe and connection to create a spiritual practice that is personalized and adapted to the things that cause this person to feel that way.

Woods is also not overly concerned with putting specific labels on people’s religious beliefs.

“It’s not my job to assign labels to people, it’s not my job to decide for people what they are,” said Woods, “It’s my job to make people feel connected and heard.”

Ideas like these are specifically prevalent in liberal communities like Bryn Mawr’s, which are generally less committed to following precedent without question.

After justifying the idea that liberals can also be religious, Woods pointed out that even though they’re not as visible as they could be, there are religious life organizations on campus.

The problem is that each of these organizations keeps to themselves and therefore religion as a whole isn’t recognized as a big part of the Bryn Mawr community, even though in some ways, it already is.

“As it is now, people are really siloed and a bit myopic, so they only see, ‘I know the 20 other Jews’ or ‘I know the five other Seventh Day Adventists’ or ‘the 12 other Muslims’ or whatever, that come to meetings.” said Woods, “So they don’t realize ‘Ooh, actually there are a couple hundred students who are actively involved with their faith tradition.’”

The problem is not a lack of religion, it’s a lack of an integrated religious community.

It’s Woods’s belief that the way to fix this invisibility of religion is to create relationships that allow faith groups to stand together. Which returns to the idea of a multi-faith community.

Woods believes that creating a multi-faith community is the way to bring religious life back to the center of Bryn Mawr’s community. She hopes the program she’s creating now to allow different faith groups to perform community service activities together will do just that.

“If I have peeled potatoes with you, and we’ve helped each other, then when you and I disagree about gay marriage, then we have some degree of trust and mutual respect where we can have that conversation.” said Woods, “when you see me as a person, then I can really talk to you.”

Woods’ hope is that once these relationships have been formed and different groups are better able to communicate with each other respectfully and in full view of the community, Bryn Mawr can show the world that young, liberal, feminist women can be religious, too.

Katelyn Schlefke writes about diversity issues at Bryn Mawr